BURNABY, BRITISH COLUMBIA: In Ocean Floor Geophysics’ (OFG) work as a provider of underwater analysis and exploration services, rock-solid communications are critical. If your comms completely fail or the intelligibility breaks down during a concert or a live-streamed corporate gathering, it’s not ideal, but you can always walk to the stage or find a workaround. When you're in the middle of the ocean… not so much.
“I come from the Remote Operated Vehicle industry and the communications systems used between the ROV pilot, the people on deck, and the bridge of the ship, are universally known as the ‘Clear-Coms,’ regardless of who they’re made by,” says OFG’s Offshore Project Manager, Tony Wass. “You know we use the word Kleenex for facial tissue? And, in Britain, they use the word Hoover for a vacuum cleaner? It’s like that.”
“What we do is extremely diverse,” Alison Proctor, COO explains: “geohazard reconnaissance, oil, gas, and archeological surveys, engineering work, pipeline inspections, detailed magnetics… we use the system to facilitate communication between physically apart people. And everything we get through GerrAudio and Clear-Com – the integrated belt packs, base stations, headsets – they’re super convenient. We don’t have any wires which eliminates snag hazards for people walking around on deck. With its low latency, the signal is perfect. It’s very powerful.”
Typically, the Clear-Com kits OFG deploy, consist of DX-wireless intercom systems (with 4-6 wireless belt packs), a wired two-channel MS-702 main station, RS-701 single-channel belt packs, and tabletop intercom stations, as well as Cobalt, industrial-grade headsets.
“Usually, we have two main stations on board,” Proctor continues. “We use the wireless belt packs on deck or wherever our operating area is. With the MS-702, one channel is attached to wireless to facilitate communications for OFG's working group, and the other channel is for the entire vessel. So, when we’re doing a joint operation we bring everybody together on a party-line.”
Wass is responsible for assembling the people and gear that go out on the ships and has been instrumental in putting together the comms systems OFG uses. And, although he doesn’t want to brag about what he’s done to the Clear-Com gear he’s used over time, suffice to say, it stands up to the rigors of the job in an environment that can be extremely severe and unforgiving, and in a situation where losing time owing to faulty communications gear is not an option.
“Some of these projects are running $150,000.00 a day,” he explains, referencing a job off the coast of Japan in 2014 on a ship using a different system. “I had a tow fish in the water and roughly three kilometres of cable out behind the vessel and had to get commands to the bridge from where I was on the back deck.” Then, the workflow involved communicating with a nearby colleague, who then relayed Wass’s needs via radio. “So, I had no idea what was happening on the bridge.” In 2015, he adds, “We started bringing our own Clear-Com gear in. So now I can communicate directly with the bridge. I’m not yelling. I can talk hands-free and not have to push a button to transmit. I know what’s going on at all times. In a critical application like this, that’s invaluable.”
And all the more so since the pandemic was declared in 2020 – “During this past year we’ve had to change our way of doing things and GerrAudio helped us to take this off-shore system we’ve come to rely on as a sturdy communication hub on a vessel and access it remotely through their LQ and Agent-IC mobile technology,” Proctor explains.
Now, using the LQ boxes, Agent-IC, and personal cell phones over a satellite link, they’re communicating more widely, fluidly, reliably (and with far more people) than ever before - facilitating conversations between crews offshore and other team members who are, literally, scattered around the globe.
“The company is in Burnaby, BC, but we have a very widespread global team,” Proctor notes. Adding that during the pandemic, expanding the capabilities of their communications systems has become even more critical to effectively connecting everyone involved on any given project - as has their need for the ongoing, responsive and knowledgeable support provided by GerrAudio.
“We introduced this new technology on a job where we needed to have a remote team participate in the offshore survey. But because of all the restrictions on travel, we couldn’t get all of our normal crew out, so the people we could get there needed to be really well-supported by an onshore team that was globally distributed,” she continues. “So, we went to GerrAudio and asked them how we could do this using Clear-Com, and they pointed us to Agent-IC and the LQs.”
Ultimately, adding Agent-IC has dramatically improved their workflow overall. Proctor says, “Basically, we have two LQ boxes linked together. They go out over the satellite internet, our shore-based people connect to the onshore box and our vessels connect to the offshore one. Now, satellite comms are notorious for bad connections, latency, and other issues, but we were able to make this system work very reliably. And the advantage is that I don’t have to ship hardware to anyone. The onshore people just download the app and we connect. Compared to a hardware-based system, it’s really simple.”
Granted, they could previously communicate globally but not nearly as fluently. “And, for people accustomed to using Clear-Com, it’s invisible,” Wass says. “We just added Agent-IC on to the system we bought in 2015 – the same headsets, the same workflow, but now we’re talking to Alison in Victoria and everyone else wherever they are in the world.”
The expertise that GerrAudio Distribution brings to the table, particularly that of Shawn Hines (GerrAudio’s west coast representative), makes them an extremely important partner meeting OFG’s evolving needs, Wass says: “If Shawn says, ‘This is going to work for you,’ I don’t even question it. I just do it.”
Often, OFG require answers and solutions on short notice, he continues, referencing their request for wired/wireless headsets that mount easily on hard hats and Hines’ ability to source a viable solution swiftly. “Shawn had to do that in a rush,” he says, adding that although the clips used to mount the headsets could be hardier, “The electronics and the operating side are really strong.”
As for sound quality, Wass concludes: “When we’re out in pouring rain a little trick we have is cutting the fingertip of a rubber glove off and covering the mic, and we’re still getting great sound. It’s a very noisy environment, but with the Cobalt headsets and Clear-Com’s noise cancellation, I can just talk to people in a normal voice. No one’s shouting. I’m not tripping over cables. It’s fantastic!
Written by: Kevin Young
Published: April 2021